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tv   Washington Week  PBS  January 15, 2011 6:30pm-7:00pm EST

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gwen: it was a time for accusation, finger-pointing, and, in the end, introspection. how an arizona shooting rampage may have shifted the national debate. tonight on "washington week. it was just one shot right after the other. just bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. i mean it's just an absolutely >>profane act. it's shocking. it's been surreal. >>we didn't feel like we would be picking out caskets at 9 years old. gwen: moments of chaos in a supermarket parking lot morph into a week of debate, self-analysis, and mourning. >> our hearts are broken, but our spirit is not.
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>>words are inadequate at a time like this. but nonetheless i hope it is a comfort. gwen: as a member of congress fights for survival, her colleagues debate gun rights, security, the cost of incivility, and the cost of laying blame. >> journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. gwen: as a president seizes the moment -- >> i want our democracy to be as good as christina imagined it. i want america to be as good as she imagined it. gwen: we examine the event, the investigation, and what it means for the national political discourse with the reporters covering the week. dan balz of "the washington post," charles babington of the associated press, janet hook of the "wall street journal," and pete williams of nbc news.
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>> award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens. live from our nation's capital, this is "washington week with gwen ifill". produced in association with "national journal". corporate funding for "washington week" is provided by ♪ >> a line is a powerful thing. it connects the global economy to your living room.
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cleaner air to stronger markets. factory floors to less crowded roads. today's progress is tomorrow's promise. norfolk southern. one lirningse infinity possibilities. >> corporate funding is also providing by prudential financial. and by the excellence in -- the yethics in journalism foundation, the annenberg foundation, the corporation for public broadcasting, and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. once again, live from washington, moderator gwen ifill. gwen: good evening. seldom does a single event manage to leave its imprint on such a broad swath of the public debate.
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but the tragic shooting in tucson plunged the nation and its elected leaders into a week of soul-searching that touched on the law, the limits of dispute, the protections offered by the second amendment, and heartbreakingly human stories of life, death, and the thin line that separates the two. as so often happens in these cases of focused national attention and grieving, it fell to the president of the united states to weave those themes together. >> rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let's use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together. gwen: president obama's appeal to the moral imagination won praise across the political spectrum. in an opinion piece posted
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today in "the washington post, arizona republican senator john mccain called it a terrific speech. "we are americans and fellow human beings," he wrote. "and that shared distinction is so much more important than the disputes that invigorate our noisy, rough-and-tumble political culture. that is what i heard the president say on wednesday evening. i commend and thank him for it. so, dan, with statements like that and after a week like this, dowsdb does this mean we've reached a moment of grand national comity? >> i think we've hit the pause button. when something like this happens, it causes us to look at a number of different aspects. the role -- of guns in society is on you of those.
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and this week, how we conduct political discourse in our democracy. i think we have to keep it in perspective after 9/11. 9/11 changes everything. for a time there was a great national unity. that quickly gave way to deep polarization and i think we have to expect some of that to re-emerge. the differences in this country are very deep and heartfelt and i think we're at that moment where everybody individually maybe is saying how did -- can i do what i usually do but maybe with a softer value? gwen: janet, on the hill it felt like they were reaching for the right tone when you have seriously held differences
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with the other party yet wanting to express grief. a lot of things were really going on. >> yeah, it was in congress that they really hit the pause button. the republicans had planned this week to be the week of the new republican majority in the house and they were going to have their cornerstone vote on wednesday to repeal the health care bill. they suspended that for one week. they had one dave debate on a resolution honoring the victims of the tragedy and gabby giffords. it was actually a really unusual debate. it was like six hours scheduled and dozens and dozens, hundreds of members spoke and it was so unlike a typical house don't. very heartfelt. it reminds us that congress is in addition to being a legislative community, a community. a lot of people know gabby
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giffords and expressed their connections. i think the bigger challenge is when they do this week. i'm skeptical it will have too much effect on the debates over the health care bill. that is deeply felt. you can express your opposition in terms more civil than what happened in the campaign or when offices of members of congress were being vandalized or one had his electricity cut off earv voted for the bill. so i don't expect the political debate to change but maybe for a week we'll see a softer tone. gwen: we've heard president obama and john boehner use exactly the same words, that we can disagree without being disagreerblings then disagreeablity ensued. do we see things becoming
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disagreeable again? >> if i had to guess, i'd say we're going to lapse back. same thing happened after 9/11 and after the oklahoma city bombing in 1995. that year we had such an impasse between the parties that the government shut down. one thing that's happening is that congress, especially the house, is just becoming more and more partisan. years ago you had conservatives in the democratic party from the south, you had some liberals and definitely moderates in the republican party, mainly from the northeast. almost all those have been defeated now and the realignment of the parties is nearly complete. you had 60 lose their estates -- seats, the grat majority of those were the so-called blue dog democrats. now it's a smaller democratic caulk ugs but also more liberal. for those reasons you have the
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systemic reasons making it harder and harder for this comity to take place. gwen: let's go to the site of the tragedyly, what happened on the ground in tucson. now we turn to the investigation, figuring out the why. the president alluded to this the other night, that the question we are asking is why. are we any closer now, pete? >> i don't know that we will ever really know. it seems that person was spiraling downward. the person on whom he had fixated his hatred of government, giffords, was becoming more successful the she had just been re-elected in a very noisy campaign and this man, jared loughner, had been rejected by the united states army, thrown out of college, he dropped out when the college said he wouldn't -- couldn't
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come back until he could prove he was mentally stable enough to not be a danger to teachers and fellow students, and at the same time his apparent mental disease was getting worse. he had met her m 2007. she had one of these "congress on the corner" events then and he asked her a question, "what is government if words have no meaning," and the question is delphic and can't be answered but it's apparent he became fixated on her and you put all this together and you have this witches' brew of forces in his life. gwen: but then you had this dupnik effect, the sheriff of pima county came oit and said see, this is what happens when you have this kind of toxic
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debate going on in the country and for at least 48 hours, people were trying to make the link between loughner and anybody who had had a tough campaign, chiefly sarah palin. and by midweek it became clear that -- there was no connection. >> well, we don't know all the forces. we nope a huge amount about what he was doing. the sheriff's office has accounted for virtually every minute leading up to this. he talked about "my assassination," he planned ahead. we still don't know what other influences might have been brought to bear, but i will say so far we haven't seen any indication of what you were talking about. gwen: but that certainly roiled the debate. >> terribly. literally within an hour or two offer -- after the shootings, that debate was beginning to take place, and it cranked up
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at enormous volume and with very deep bitterness. sarah palin was literally under attack on her facebook page, threat levels to her escalated to the point that her people began to talk to security -- >> because of that ad. gwen: well, she had put up on her web site these targets -- she had targeted gabrielle giffords. >> and let's gabrielle giffords did a tv interview with msnbc a year ago in which she talked about thatsite and mentioned sarah palin by name and said she waird -- worried about the consequences of these kinds of actions. granted, there seems to be no connection, or no evidence that loughner knew about that but once you have a member of congress say in front of a tv camera, "i worry about that sort of thing," and lo and
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behold she gets shot in the head, it gets complicated and you have to explain to the reader owe -- or the listener -- gwen: in fairness, that didn't have -- happen for a couple days. >> i think most media outlets did lay this out as clearly as they could. a number of more partisan groups jumped on it. >> which is partly a reflection of the political environment in which we operate. mainstream media is one thing, but it's only a piece of the entirety of the conversation that goes on in politics today. some people try to be responsible and some people feel they are responsible but they do it in a different way. we saw all that, it just crystallized in the couple days -- gwen: yeah, who among us has not used some kind of targeting mentality to describe politics or to describe almost anything?
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but the question still becomes at the ends of a -- end of a long week of debate in which we went eight steps forward and three back -- sarah palin pushed back pretty aggressively against the notion that she was culpable and then the president and john mccain talked about this in far more calm ways. do we lose site -- sight of the danger here, that the members of congress do this, there are 535 members of them, mostly without extreme security, who believe their job when they get home on the weekend is to go meet with constituents in? right. that's why for congress this was not just a random act of violence they could look calmly at and say gee, that's too bad. it's something they do all the time, telling constituents exactly where they're going to be and where they're going to be and showing up with an armed guard kind of defeats the
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purpose. but, you know, that's life as a member of congress. they're not about to retreat from doing that because they feel like that's part of their job. gwen: it's actually life as a public official. any kind of public official. eric holder, the justice department, the attorney general, had this to say about that very issue this week. >> without question, threats against public officials, whatever form they take, continue to be cause for concern and vigilance, but i do not believe that these threats are as strong as the forces working for tolerance and peace. gwen: so what does the justice department -- what do federal officials do with these threats, with what we presume to be threats we don't even know about? >> well, i think you're seeing two things happening. you are seeing members of congress go to the police and f.b.i. and do an inventory of what -- who they think might be a threat to the member of congress.
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who's been stalking them or sending them threatening letters? they take it much more seriously now. we've seen f.b.i. abblets and others going out and talking to the people, saying i want to make sure this is not a problem. but you have 535 members going home and doing four, five events a day. so do the math. it is not possible for f.b.i. agents to go out with them. the sath -- sergeant of arms of the house said if he had been told what giffords planned to do, he might have said, well, you might want to send a police cruiser bying and be in the parking lot. would that have made any difference? gwen: no. one of the things that happens after these kind of national paroxysms, we were just this
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way when president clinton went to oklahoma city after the bombings, we were taken somewhat by surprise when president bush went to new york after 9/11 and picked up this bullhorn and talked. but these meements -- moments, all eyes are on the president. >> it is interesting that the role of mourner in chief is now part of the contemporary job description of the president. gwen: -- gwen: it was not always? >> it was not always. you can go back to gettysburg and lincoln did that, but it was not always that way. it began i think with reagan after the challenger disaster. i thought this was an important moment for president obama. he was able to deliver what is in essence a political message to the country, which is let us step back, let us cool, let us
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seek our better angels. but he did it in a way that was basically shorn of partisanship, i thought, and that's one of the reasons he has gotten praise across the political spectrum for what he was able to do. he used the tragedy and the victims, in particular the 9-year-old, christina taylor green, to say let us live up to what she believed this country was and could be, and i think that that was effective. i think the other thing to say about him is, i mean it's been written a lot since the speech that this echoed themes of his 2008 campaign and in a way this was the kind of setting where that message, which is very much part of president obama, not the totality of president obama but part of president obama, is able to come forth. that seemed to come straight from his soul. gwen: i was taken by how the difference between that kind of
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discussion and the discussion which inevitably we have in washington about what to do about these things, which this week wasn't so much about gun rights and gun control as you would think, though there is a debate going on about it, and certainly not about mental health care -- is there any movement coming on those issues that you see signs of, janet? >> you know, i don't think so. the politics and legislative gridlock on gun issues is pretty firmly in place. this episode, though, kind of raised proposals that were a little more targeted that you would think might gain some traction, like how about limiting those he ammunition clips that allow you to shoot so many bullets so quickly? one of the more moving speeches on president house floor came from carolyn mccarthy, a congressman from new york who was elected after her husband was assassinated -- not assassinated, but he was shot to death on a subway train in
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new york the but she spoke about the very personal aspect of the tragedy rather than advocating for gun control. i was very struck by that. ? the bill that she'll introduce tuesday would revive in a more concentrated way that -- a provision that was actual fly place for 10 years. it would outlaw the sale of high capacity magazines -- gwen: that's the thing he had. >> and when he was changing magazines, the people tackled him. he walked in with 30-plus rounds in that glock 9 and when he ran out, he was reloading. gwen: and mental health care?
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no discussion about that really? or just does talking about that almost gifblet alleged shooter a defense, an insanity defense? >> well, it's so hard to know what are the solutions to that problem. there were so many yellow lights if not red lights about him, and yet he was still able to buy -- buy a hand gun, a powerful gun. he was never really treated for mental illness in a serious way. so society in this instance in a sense broke down because collectively and individually, people just weren't able to -- gwen: i feel like we had this conversation right after virginia tech. >> there was a difference there because in virginia tech, the young man who first down the -- fired the bullets actually had tripped the wires that should have gotten him into the federal database. here the purchase was entirely legal.
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he had never been, in the words of law, adjudicated a mental defective. gwen: so at least one senator is suggesting that at the state of the union this week, everybody sit together, none of that standing up on one side and the other. nobody seems to be pushing back on that. is it going to happen? >> that's mark udall frp utah. it's pushed bit group, the third way. and right off the bat, the leaders, like steny hoyer, the whip, were very cool to this and then members on both sides said it's a good idea. we had in some of the primaries, bob bennett, and lisa murkowski with the write-in but they got bounced off the ticket in the
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republican primary process largely because they were seen as not rigid enough, too willing to talk or cooperate with democrats. when conservative republicans from the house see that, what list -- lessen -- lesson are they going to snake as silly -- silly as it sounds, i'm not you are sure of them want to be seen signature next to them. >> but also even before the shootings shall the new speaker, john boehner, had attempted to set a more civil tone for the house of representatives and clearly in the wake of the election also will -- losses, president obama had gone back more to let us work together, let us try to come together. so there were some seeds planted before tucson by two important leaders that in the wake of tucson could give us more time speaking coolly. >> and i actually think you will see some members signature on the aisle during the state of the union if only because, you know, there is no seating
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plan. people haven't been sitting, democrats and republicans, you know, they can sit anywhere they want. gwen: and if you're lieberman or murkowski, why not? >> it's an easy way to show bipartisanship. gwen: something else to watch for at the state of the union. thank you all very much. it's been a tough week. we hope we helped you make sense of it all. the conversation ends here, but it continues on line with our "washington week" webcast extra. check it out. keep track of daily developments on the pbs news hour, and we'll see you right here next week on "washington week. good night. >> "washington week" was produced by weta, which is solely responsible for its content. funding for "washington week" is provided by -- >> this rock has never stood
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